Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere


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It’s all about the craft #amreading #mystery

Left Coast Crime is a week and a half away, and I’m halfway through the last book I need to read for the panel I’m moderating. Sure, I technically didn’t have to read the panelists’ books, but I think it’s a good way to prep, and it makes it easier to come up with discussion questions.

Learning about the craft of writing is vital, I think, to improving as an author. Mysteries–well, all stories I suppose–follow a general pattern: crime, finding clues, discovering villian, catching villian. Of course, there are finer points than that, but in general a mystery is solving a puzzle.

One thing I find myself doing, especially when I read books from not-as-well-known-authors (meaning not John Sandford or William Kent Kreuger or J.A. Jance, etc), is noticing the different plot points in the story. You know, inciting incident, pinch point 1, midpoint, pinch point 2, climax, resolution. There are a lot of different ways to slice it, but in general, that’s the path stories follow.

Some stories are deeply engaging, so much so that I don’t pay attention to the structure or how the author did it. I recently read Glen Erik Hamiliton’s Past Crimes, and I stopped paying attention to structure early on. Other books I’ve read don’t draw me in as much, so I think to notice structure.

The curse of learning more about the craft 🙂

When I pay attention to the mechanics of the story, I stop and think “why?” Why am I noticing the midpoint is too early or too late, or the inciting incident could have been two scenes earlier? Why don’t I think about structure when I read other stories?

I think it comes down to engagement. Granted, writing is a craft, and by nature is subjective, meaning books I really like other people might consider “meh”, or books other people absolutely love I might not finish (Where the Crawdads Sing anyone?). What engages me in a story? The plot, sure, but I keep coming back to the characters. When I’ve done workshops, that seems to be the general consensus: people read stories for the characters.

And that’s what I’ve discovered is one difference between lesser-known authors and more widely-recognized authors. I find myself drawn in to Cork O’Connor (Kreuger), or Virgil Flowers (Sandford), or Joanna Brady (Jance), or Ava Oosterling (Christine DeSmet) or Sean McPherson (Laurie Buchanan). I don’t always feel as engaged with other characters, some in books by lesser-known authors.

So what is it about those characters? Not just protagonists. Authors have created anti-heroes and even villains that readers become invested in. Are they relatable? In some respects they are, like anyone is relatable, but why are some characters so engaging?

I suppose the answer to that question is in the same vein as the answer to the question of why do I get along with some people when I just meet them, and I try to avoid other people I just meet for reasons I can’t pinpoint. Some characters I love, some characters I tolerate, other characters I loathe. An author can create a character that comes to life on their own just by virtue of who they are, but that same author can create a character that toes that border between “flat” and “three-dimensional.” Or, as in life, the character seems real enough, but is someone you would try to avoid.

It all comes down, I think, to craft. There are plenty of books on creating characters, and practicing the craft helps hone those skills. Observing people in real life is part of that, so we can bring those qualities and quirks to our characters. Throw these characters a curve ball of a crime, and draw readers into their lives as they try to solve the puzzle and catch the villian. We, as authors, want the reader to become invested in the story, and that means caring about what happens to our characters.

Stay safe, everyone, with the storms marching across the country. We’re due for more snow at the beginning of the week. The spring equinox cannot come soon enough!

Keep on writing!


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When characters change their story #amwriting #amreading

Holy crap! It’s almost March?! Wow! Either I haven’t been paying much attention (likely) or time has been flying (eh, not as likely). I’ve been working on my rural MN mystery project while I let Book 2 steep a bit. I figure I’ll give it another week before I tackle the next revision; I’m aiming to turn it in to my writing teacher by the end of March.

Really.

Anyway, I’ve been tinkering with the rural MN mystery for a few years, off and on between spits and starts with Book 2. I think it’s a neat story, and I’m trying out a few new-to-me techniques, like dual timelines and first-person POV (first person isn’t new to me, but I haven’t used it outside of a few short stories way back in the day).

I’ve had my main characters put together for a while. I know their histories, their motivations, and all that good stuff. I know where they came from, what they do for a living, and their favorite flavor of ice cream … okay, maybe not that last one, but you get it.

Secondary characters are a little different. There are secondary characters and secondary characters. Maybe minor characters is a better term. Yeah, let’s go with that. I still know the backgrounds of secondary characters; I suppose they would be called the supporting cast in a movie. Those are the ones with a history of some sort with the main characters.

Minor characters are the ones that pop in and out of the story because someone needs to be there. In my book, Murder in Plane Sight, I needed someone to take my main character to a place where she would cross paths with a secondary character. My main character, Sierra, had no reason to be anywhere the secondary character was.

To remedy this, I looked at Sierra’s background. Aha! She has a younger sister. Her sister’s sole purpose in the story is to make sure Sierra is someplace in particular. Voila! Minor character (for now), and she’s just the way I imagined her.

In the rural MN mystery, my main character is digging for information. There are two minor characters she talks to, kinda like witnesses. They both started out as “man on the street” characters who appear once, do their job, and exit – stage left.

I wrote a scene with the first minor character, and it went as expected. Five minutes (book time) of questions, and the minor character is finished. Bye, have a nice life.

Okay, on to the next scene. I had a similar vision for the MC’s conversation with this minor character: ask a few questions, go their separate ways.

Yeah, not so much. The character is a guy in his mid- to late-twenties, a cook in a nursing home who people claim looks a lot like a young Steve McQueen. In my mind, he was a “good neighbor”, willing to mow your lawn while you go on vacation or stop on the side of the road to help you change that flat tire. A “Minnesota Nice” kind of guy. Easy going. Pleasant. Just, nice.

He must have decided “nice” was overrated, because by the end of the scene, I had a new suspect/possible bad guy. How the hell did that happen? I swear he was nothing but a guy all the little old ladies love because he’s handsome and charming.

On the bright side (because there’s always a reason a writer’s subconscious does stuff like this, right?), I now have another someone who could have done the crime. I don’t know his background yet, so he may have a motive I haven’t discovered. Besides, who wouldn’t want to see more of a young Steve McQueen look-alike?

One more week to explore this story before I go back to Book 2 and revision round #4. Oh, almost forgot:

If you have some time next weekend, join me at the Deep Valley Book Festival’s “Cabin Fever” event! I’m on panels at 10a (CT) and 1p (CT). It’s fun, it’s authors, and it’s FREE! No driving required (or pants, if that’s your thing 😉 )

It feels like spring here, at least until it snows tomorrow. Sigh. The equinox is in three weeks–yippee! I’m starting my seeds and dreaming of fresh green grass and new leaves (when I’m not thinking about Book 2, that is 🙂 )

Happy Writing!

Wake me when it’s spring


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Reading as a writer … for fun? #amreading #amwriting #amrevising

I indulged in a bit of reading for fun this week, since I figured out what scenes to submit for my assignment.

Okay, fine. I was procrastinating on my homework. There. Happy?

I haven’t read much of anything for a while, with the revisions and homework and all. Oh, and that pesky full-time job. And the garden.

With the upcoming release of Harry Dresden’s new adventure, Peace Talks, I decided to reread the last book in the series to refresh my memory, since it’s been, oh, years since Skin Game came out. Then I had to reread the book that introduced Mouse because hey, it’s Mouse.

After reconnecting with Harry, I was ready for more snarky urban fantasy, or at least snarky mysteries with a paranormal angle. And what luck! Another of my favorite urban fantasy authors just released a new book (some snark included). Not only that, but I ran across a book from a fellow member of Sisters in Crime that sounded like a nice break from serious. And writing.

I have now read 4 books (Skin Game (Dresden), Blood Rites (Harry again), Ann Charles’ first Deadwood book Nearly Departed in Deadwood, and Patricia Briggs’ latest Mercy Thompson book, Smoke Bitten) in the span of three weeks (one of which took me all of a day and a half to read), when I haven’t read much of anything for months.

Reunions with old friends (Harry and Mercy) are great, and meeting new ones (Violet Parker, with her purple cowboy boots) is fun, but you know you are a real writer when IT happens.

Yes, the infamous “Aha! I see what you did there” moment when you read a scene and you can “see” the structure of the scene and how it lures the reader on.

Here’s a “for instance”: In Nearly Departed in Deadwood, Violet has 10-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. She becomes friends with a codger who has a gun named Bessie and a total lack of subtlety, meets the tall dark handsome sexy guy next door to the office (sparks there), and starts dating the tall blond handsome rich guy whose family owns the jewelry store in town. So, sparks between dark sexy and Vi (who resists her attraction to him, yet he obviously likes her), but she dates blond handsome (she likes him more than dark sexy, or so she tells herself).

What’s more fun for readers than the tension between a girl and the guy she is determined not to be attracted to? Oh, and toss in the guy who is a chick magnet and rich. So, what does the author do? She includes a scene in which the codger and dark sexy guy are with Violet at the ER (her daughter broke her arm). Dark sexy is being the good friend, keeping Vi calm and comforting her like any sexy guy would (you know, holding her close), when blond handsome shows up.

Boom! The classic setup for tension with love interests. And the guys, of course, have been trying to win her affection in their own ways. Vi is determined not to fall for dark sexy (he’s been teasing her, all innocent-like, since they met), so she greets blond handsome like a lonely girl greets her boyfriend after he’s been gone for a week.

I find myself noticing all these little things now, the rising tension between characters and in scenes, the scene “cliff-hangers” that draw the reader on, and especially the fresh metaphors and descriptions (how the hell do they come up with those?). The first time I noticed the craft behind the story was when I read Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule, his debut novel, and I couldn’t put it down. I paid attention to what he did that compelled me to read on.

Questions. Every chapter didn’t have a cliff-hanger, per se, but each had some question I just had to find the answer to. Same with the Dresden books, though those are more “how is he going to get out of this?”

Part of me misses that reader ignorance: the point of reading the story is to escape and live in another place and time for a bit without caring about anything except what happens to the characters–find and stop the bad guy or get the prize. I can’t do that anymore without noticing things with a writer’s eye. The setup, the character arcs, the tension, the description, the way other authors convey emotion.

Does it ruin a story for me? Only if the author does a middling or lousy job of keeping my interest (and then I analyze why it doesn’t keep me reading). When I notice these things, I try to take mental notes so I can improve my own writing. After hearing Allen Eskens talk about the craft and how he approaches a story, I notice that now in his books and others.

Reading like a writer means missing a little of that magic that readers search for in a good book, the escape where the real world goes away for a while. But reading like a writer makes me appreciate more the bits and pieces of what creates that magic to begin with.

Happy Summer Solstice! Just think, from this point on (until the winter solstice), the days will be getting shorter. Or, don’t think about it. Yeah, probably better for the psyche if we just enjoy now and express surprise later when it’s dark before 8p again.

Write on!

Zoey sleeping on chair


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Newton’s Third Law (for writers)

You remember those, right? Okay, nerd cap on for the refresher of Newton’s Laws of Motion:

  • First law: A body at rest tends to stay at rest; a body in motion tends to stay in motion (or simply, inertia). It’s like not wanting to get out of bed in the morning (body at rest), and then the cat (or dog) jumps on you and insists it’s time for breakfast/walk/pee break (an outside force affecting inertia 😀 ).
  • Second law: An object’s force is mass times acceleration. Think of it as the difference between a terrier running up to greet you and a Great Dane running up to greet you. One of these will be like catching a basketball, the other will body-slam you.
  • Third law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Remember those experiments way back in elementary school where the same poles of magnets would repel? Yep, kinda like that.

So, what exactly has this got to do with writing? Well, I was thinking (I know, scary 🙂 ) about characters and reactions.

Earlier this week I subbed at the library, because their high school staff member has basketball practice after school. And because it was after Thanksgiving, it was time to decorate for Christmas. Lexy (the high schooler) set up the tree already, so all I had to do was find stuff to put on the walls, etc.

The decorations are stored in the basement. So the staff member I was relieving led me into the basement to show me where things were. And one of the first things I noticed was this:

If you saw this in your basement, what would be your first reaction? Scream? Find something to hit it with? Or calmly say, “Hey, did you know you have a bat hibernating in the basement?”

Because the little guy wasn’t bothering anyone, and I knew it was sleeping, I picked the third option. (Honestly, bats don’t bother me because I know they eat bugs. Lots of bugs.)

Anyway, that (and every Sunday night’s America’s Funniest Videos episode) made me think about characters and how they react to things. A lot of our everyday activity is based on actions and our reactions to them. A character returns home from errands and finds the door to her apartment–that she is absolutely certain she locked–is unlocked. A character arrives after a call from a friend frantic about a break-in, and finds said friend on the floor unconscious and bleeding.

For every situation a character will react in a particular way. Does that character freak out when she finds the door unlocked? What about finding the friend? How does she handle the situation? Does she enter the apartment anyway? Does she run off to find help?

Characters should react the way we expect them to. An exterminator will not jump up on a chair when a mouse scurries across the kitchen floor. A firefighter will not run around frantically when they find their garage on fire.

Then again, sometimes it works to have a character react in an unexpected way. The nurse who retches when a patient vomits. Or, as seen on AFV, the mom who can’t bear to prep a raw turkey without gagging (no, she didn’t throw up, but it sounded like she usually did).

If a character reacts in a way the reader doesn’t expect, there must be a good reason for it. Is the nurse sensitive to odor? (of course, if he is, why on earth be a nurse?) Maybe he is going through chemotherapy and is extra-sensitive to odors. Maybe the mom who can’t stand to touch raw meat had to prep the turkey this year because her sister just got a new job and is working over Thanksgiving.

Sometimes it’s fun to have a character react differently than expected. It keeps things interesting, but it also has to fit the character. Case in point: I used to be an aircraft mechanic, and the only female aircraft mechanic where I worked. So one night I’m walking across the hangar and someone calls my name. I look, and this thing is arcing through the air in my direction. So I calmly stand where I’m at and watch a dead mouse hit the floor a few feet away.

I don’t know what my co-worker was expecting me to do, but I think he was disappointed, because I didn’t react the way he expected, i.e. like a girl. Another example is when one of the guys I worked with (same place) reacted to a moth fluttering around in the crew van we took to the gate. Imagine a little kid reacting to a moth–they dance around and swat at it. The next night, someone glued a dead cecropia moth to the top of his toolbox. Moral of the story: don’t let your fellow mechanics know you’re afraid of moths.

Make sure your characters react to situations in a way that fits their personality. If they react otherwise, give them a reason to do so. In case you were wondering about the bat, someone came the next day and removed it. And I found out that was the third bat they had found in the basement. Methinks a bat house might be a nice alternative.

And I made it for NaNo! Of course, I didn’t finish the story, but I’m a lot closer to the end than I was before. This weekend is forecast to be snowing and blowing, so I have a great excuse to hunker down and write.

Have a great weekend!

zoey asleep


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Endearing characters

zoey awake Rich characters are an author’s goal. If we can create characters that stick with readers after they have closed our book, we’ve done our job.

But we don’t always consider adding an extra little treat to our stories, especially if we write in the suspense or thriller genres.

Pets are something we can add to our stories to enrich them, and round out the human characters. I mean, many readers can relate to a character who has a dog that needs to be walked or a cat that insists on being let outdoors at the most inconvenient times.

In cozy mysteries especially, pets seem to be everything from sidekicks to co-protagonists. In the Fudge Shop Mysteries by Christine DeSmet, Lucky Harbor, a fudge-loving mutt, is both a sleuth and a troublemaker. In the Stephanie Plum mysteries by Janet Evanovich, Rex the hamster is Stephanie’s only roommate. More entertaining is Bob the golden retriever, a galoot who eats anything (including socks and underwear) and later “horks” it up.

Pets aren’t just for cozy mysteries, either. In J. D. Robb’s In Death futuristic police procedural series, Eve Dallas owes her life to the plump cat she names Galahad. Even in a few of the later Special Crimes Unit/Bishop Files books by Kay Hooper, she added dogs and a cat named Pendragon that all seem more than average.

Some of my favorite fictional pets appear in urban fantasy. One of my favorite urban fantasy series is the Dresden series by Jim Butcher. Harry Dresden lives alone in a basement apartment with Mister, a huge domestic cat, as his only freeloader–er, pet. Later, he acquires a foo dog, which is a mythic temple guardian in Tibet (think of those dog/lion statues you always see outside temples) that looks like a Tibetan mastiff. Mouse is one of my favorite fictional pets. He’s huge, but sweet. In Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series, Oberon is an Irish wolfhound who adds some comic relief.

If I could choose any fictional pet for my own, though, it’d be a close tie between Mouse and the firelizards from Anne McCaffery’s Pern series. I mean, who wouldn’t want tiny dragons to hang out with?

Adding a pet, or a stray that winds up as a pet, is a great way to give your readers another reason to feel connected to your characters. In my debut novel, I have a pet ferret as a little extra source of endearment. As I’ve been working on Book 2, I didn’t start out with a pet, but the more I write, the more I think a pet is needed. One of the characters went through cancer treatment, including surgery. Her husband would be worried, and lonely while his wife is in the hospital. Then there’s the time he can’t be at home with her while she’s recuperating. What better than a dog–or a cat–to keep them company?

Not every story needs a pet, but sometimes it makes sense. Remember, we want our readers to think of our characters as real people. Real people have pets. Besides, you never know when that pet will be the key to resolving a conflict or reaching a goal.

Amazingly, I have a free weekend–woo-hoo! I see two days of heavy writing in my future 😀

Write Well! Write On!

zoey asleep